A Palembang Walkthrough

19-22 Feb 2015. Palembang, Indonesia

I trooped off to another flash travelling destination over the Lunar New Year holidays. This time round to Palembang, Indonesia. Not your typical destination, but then again, I’ve never been a typical destination kind of person. So what exactly is there to see in Palembang?

Palembang is the second largest city in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Musi River cuts through the city, bisecting it into two. Linking northern and southern Palembang is the majestic Ampera Bridge. This is one of the largest bridges in Indonesia, and is a distinctive landmark. The Ampera Bridge is also what you see on every postcard, fridge magnet or keychain from Palembang.

Northern Bank – Seberang Ilir

City life is at its most bustling and exciting at the area around the northern bank of the Ampera Bridge. The large area under the bridge houses an open air street market, selling mainly clothing. There is also a TransMusi stop underneath the bridge. The TransMusi is perhaps the easiest way for a tourist to get around by public transport. These buses ply routes around the city, and for just 5500 Rupiah, you can travel around without difficulty. The alternative is taking the angkutan kota, the city vans but these require a bit more savvy, since there are no clear route maps you can find online, unlike the TransMusi network.

I did take a few of these vans to get from place to place, and being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia helps of course. Look out for your bags though. “There are pickpockets”. This was advice from more than one local. I did not encounter any incidents though, other than a near accident when my bajaj (those three wheeler tuk-tuks) almost crashed into the rear of a stationary car that was double parked in the middle of the road.

To the west of the bridge, a slew of waterfront restaurants and eateries line up along the waterfront. These include a KFC and a J.Co Donuts outlet, with seats overlooking the river, allowing for some spectacular views of the Ampera Bridge. Further down, the pretty waterfront promenade is where everyone goes to in the late afternoon. It is a bit of a party atmosphere here, with balloon sellers, and food vendors setting up their own mobile stalls, complete with stoves and short stools for their customers. I had myself a “telor kerak” made out of crispy slightly burnt eggs scraped off the bottom of a wok, and would have eaten from one of the many Mie Tek Tek stalls had I not been so full.

Still along the northern bank, and on the east side of the bridge is an indoor market known as Pasar 16 Ilir. A maze of alleys to get lost in, with vendors calling out to you from left and right. Each stall sells colourful garments but the highlight would be the gold threaded fabric known as songket. The gold thread, sometimes also in silver, enhances the base cloth and creates very desirable clothing pieces. The good quality hand-woven pieces could cost hundreds of Singapore dollars. Machine sewn ones would be cheaper, but still more expensive than normal cloth. I shopped around and learnt a little about the fabric.

Just immediately north of the bridge are a cluster of tourist sites which, together with the bridge, make up the heart of Palembang. First is a massive fountain, in the middle of a roundabout. Just further down the road is the grand Masjid Agung, a place of worship constructed in 1738 and today the grandest mosque in the city.

Nearby is the Monpera, helpfully abbreviated from Monument Ampera. This giant grey building in the shape of a flower was erected to honour the dead who fought against their Dutch colonists. Inside the building is a rather dismal museum, with photos of war heroes and paraphernalia. The best part of Monpera was climbing up 8 flights of stairs to reach the open roof, where young couples sit and scribble declarations of love on the surface of the roof. Just behind the monument is the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II Museum, a more slightly more impressive collection of the history of Palembang.

Most people end up taking a boat cruise down the Musi river. The main attraction is Kemaro Island, around 5 kilometres downriver. The Chinese temple on the island in the middle of the river is where the local Chinese would go during festivals like Chap Goh Meh.

Food & Malls

One of the main hangouts for shopping is the Palembang Indah Mall. Like most large Indonesian cities, there is a surge of new shopping malls, where the affluent and trendy would hang out. For m, the most impressive thing about the mall is the state of the art Cineplex, which surpasses the mediocre cinemas back home. Over here, the cinema experience is a grand affair, with plushy seats and attendants who greet you with palms together. Even the area around the ticket counter looks like an airport VIP lounge. And might I add that the price is less than half of what we pay back in Singapore.

The newest mall is the Palembang Icon, fancy and with a layout mimicking the malls back home. However, I preferred the mall just next to it, Palembang Square which, although shabbier, has a better mix of tenants.

My affinity for Indonesian cuisine makes this next section very biased. Padang cuisine can be found in chains like Sederhana or Pagi Sore. Both restaurants will have waiters serving you as astounding number of dishes, leaving you flabbergasted if it’s your first time visiting. How it works is that you pick out only the dishes you want, and leave the rest. They will charge you accordingly. The specialty in Palembang is pempek, a chewy fish cake dough made out of fish and tapioca. It is kind of similar to the keropok lekor found in Malaysia. The Palembang version is eaten with cuko, a sweet vinegary black sauce that makes the pempek delicious. Pempek is sold everywhere and local tourists travelling to Palembang would pack large boxes to bring back home.

Southern Bank – Seberang Ulu

I spent a fair bit of time on the southern bank of the Musi River too. Crossing the Ampera bridge, and flagging an angkut, I reached the Palembang Cheng Ho Mosque. Cheng Ho, or Zheng He, is the Hui Chinese admiral born into a Muslim family, who in the 15th century made 7 expeditions from China to the rest of the world, visiting 37 countries in the process. He stopped by Palembang multiple times on his journeys and at one point helped the locals ward off seafaring bandits. The Cheng Ho mosque is named after him. The mosque itself is new, built in 2008, and has oriental architecture atypical of normal mosques there. Near the mosque is the Jakabaring stadium where the 2011 SEA games was held.

Getting on a bajaj, the helpful driver took me to the Kapitan’s House. This 500 year old house located at the southern bank of the Musi near the Ampera bridge, is still lived in by descendants of the Kapitan. The Kapitan was a local Chinese appointed by the authorities when Palembang was under Dutch rule, to be the representative of the Chinese community. He was the one the Dutch would have dealings with. And the Kapitan’s house is one of three still remaining in the area. Inside the house is a prayer shrine, as well as many portraits on the walls, each one showing an ancestor or a current member of the family. Immediately to the right of the house is another house, this one also 500 years old, but not lived in. Instead it is used as an ancestral shrine.

Outside Central Palembang

Additionally, I visited a couple of museums outside of the city centre. The Sriwijaya Museum lies outside the city. It is on the grounds of ancient Sriwijaya ruins which are long gone. In its place now is a pleasant park, with waterways and a lake that was dug up during the Sriwijaya period. The museum itself has a collection of artefacts from the Sriwijaya empire (7th to 13th CE). Sriwijaya was the center of Buddhism in the region, and the museum features Buddhist deities and inscriptions. Within the hinterlands of Sriwijaya, Hinduism flourished and the museum displays a selection of Hinduism-related artefacts from Bumiayu temple ruins. Getting to the remote Sriwijaya Museum on public transport is tough, so you might want to hire a taxi. Remember to get the driver to wait for you at the parking lot of the museum while you explore.

The other big museum is the Balaputradewa Museum. More accessible than the previous museum and thus considerably more touristed, the Balaputradewa has several galleries that chronologically trace the history of South Sumatra. The most interesting section for me though is the display on the megalithic culture of South Sumatra. 2000 year old carved rock specimens in the shape of humans and animals have been found in South Sumatra, near the Lahat and Pagar Alam districts. Some of the collected rock specimens are on display here at the Balaputradewa Museum. Getting there by public transport is possible. Just take the angkut that shuttles from Ampera to KM5. Ask to stop outside the museum.

Getting to Palembang.

Updated Oct’17: Silkair has transfered their Palembang service to Scoot. Jetstar also goes to Palembang. Previously, both services were unavailable, so we took a fast ferry from Singapore to Batam, and then flew from Batam’s Hang Nadim Airport to Palembang on Citilink Air, an Indonesian low cost carrier.


The Churches of Iloilo

Iloilo City – Iloilo Province – Panay – Visayas – Philippines

While on a short little trip up to the Philippines city of Iloilo back in January for the colourfully fantastic Dinagyang festival, I took the opportunity to see the Spanish era churches of Iloilo Province. These century old churches can be found in all the towns, and I visited 5.

1) Miagao Church

Also known as the The Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova, the church in Miagao town is listed as a UNESCO protected heritage site under the entry “Baroque Churches of the Philippines”. Originally built in 1797 in the local interpretation of the Baroque architectural style, the church served as a fortress against Muslim Moro raiders.

Grand facade of the Miagao church, includes two bell towers on either side.

Giant buttresses support the thick walls of the church. More fortress than church, definitely.

The pediment has a distinctly botanical motif. An interesting mix of east and west. St. Christopher carrying the child Christ under a coconut tree, with a papaya tree to his left.

The interior of the church. The ceiling is low compared to how large it looks outside.

2) The San Joaquin Church

This was my favourite church visited. Despite being less famous than the Miagao church, the 1869-built San Joaquin Church has an equally, if not more, outstanding pediment. This one features a busy scene of horse-riding soldiers in battle with the beleaguered Moro fighters, during the battle of Tetuan. To the right is a three storey attached bell-tower.

The pediment of the San Joaquin church. The reddish colour comes from the limestone and coral that makes up the church.

Compared to the exterior, the interior is tiled, with clean lines.

Also, the town of San Joaquin is very pretty, with trishaws and motorbikes with sidecars ferrying passengers up and down the main road.

3) Jaro Cathedral

Much closer is the Jaro Cathedral, located in the Jaro district of Iloilo city. Unlike the other churches on this list, it is a cathedral. Yes there is a difference. Built in 1864, it is known for its 400 year old image of the Lady of Candles. Encased in glass in front of the cathedral, accessible via a flight of steps, the Marian image of the Virgin is the site of an annual festival every 2nd Feb.

The Pope John Paul II himself visited the cathedral on Feb 21, 1981 and declared the Lady of Candles the Patron of Western Visayas.

An unusual feature of the cathedral is the bell-tower, which stands separated from the main church, across the road.

The rear interior of the cathedral

The interior of the Jaro Cathedral is simple, with male saints lined on either side of the nave.

4) Molo Church

The Molo Church, also located in Iloilo City, is commonly known as the female church. This is because the saints lined along the nave are all female. Looking at first glance more like a medieval castle than a church, this gothic structure was built in 1831.

Located in the district of Molo, Iloilo City is the Church of St. Anne, better known as the Molo Church.

The sharp pointy spires of the Molo Church stands out from the surroundings buildings.

The interior of the Molo church.

The altar of the Molo Church. I especially like the dove scene on the ceiling.

Stained glass painting of the Virgin and Child.

5) The Arevalo Church

Compared to the previous churches on the list, the Arevalo Church lacks their grandeur. But this modern looking church, located in the Villa Arevalo district of Iloilo City, has its own star attraction. The third oldest image of the Santo Nino can be found here. The 1581 Santo Nino de Arevalo is kept in a glass casing, flanked by two angels.

The exterior of the Arevalo Church.

The image of the Santo Nino de Arevalo.

A close up

The outer section of the church has a row of saints in white. The grills behind lead into the church, which has an open concept, with the grills replacing walls.

Getting There: For Singaporeans eager to pop down to Iloilo City to check out these churches, Cebu Pacific flies direct from Singapore. Yes, a direct flight to Iloilo City. If you are headed there, you could also time your visit to catch the colourful Dinagyang Festival in January.

Medan, Balige and Toba

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 1 of 4)

Date: Wed 22nd Jan’14

From Medan to Parapat

I am in Sumatra, Indonesia. The largest of Indonesia’s islands (that’s completely in Indonesia). More specifically, I am in the town of Parapat, North Sumatra. Back for another micro-adventure in one of my favourite countries after 3 years.

This time round my plan was to visit Lake Toba, the largest lake born out of a volcanic super-eruption. I had been to Lake Toba when I was much younger, though I have scant recollection of the place. Goal set for this trip? 1) Get to Tuktuk, small touristy outcrop of land on Samosir Island, the island in the middle of the lake. 2) Learn a little more about the Batak people, inhabitants in this region of North Sumatra. Loftier initial plans to visit West Sumatra’s Pagaruyung, the old Minangkabau capital and Pulau Nias was not possible, due to time constraints and the appalling amount of time required to travel overland from city to city within Sumatra.

I arrived in Medan’s brand new Kuala Namu International Airport. The airport is located an hour’s drive from the city (much further out than the old airport). How to get to the city? There is a train that goes to the Central Train Station in Medan (80,000 Rp) and a swarm of taxi drivers who will set upon you as soon as you exit the airport. Cheapest way? As you exit, turn right and take the Damri bus. It leaves when full and the ticket is 10,000 Rp. The bus drops you at Amplas Station, which is a little way east of the city centre, but perfect for me, as this was the place to board the public long-distance bus to Parapat.

From the Amplas bus station, the Sejahtera Bus (32,000 Rp) goes to Parapat, stopping at the towns of Tebing Tinggi and Pematangsiantar along the way. Total journey takes 5 hours, making pit-stops everywhere to drop off passengers. My bus left at 1.30pm, which meant that I arrived too late in Parapat to take the connecting last ferry across the lake to Samosir Island. No worries though; I decided to stay the night in Parapat.

The bus journey is typical of the travel here in Sumatra, along a one lane road, with the driver channeling Fast & The Furious, overtaking in the oncoming lane. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you do like your thrills, sit in the front row.

The second half of the bus ride passed through Batak territory. I started to see many churches by the side of the road, for the majority of the Bataks were Christians. A pretty pink-bricked ‘Gereja of St.Maria’ here, a Gereja of St. Stephanus, an Advent Hari Ketujuh (7th day adventist) there. Unlike the Acehnese to their north and the Minangkabau to their south who were Muslims, the Bataks are staunchly Christian (though some sub-groups like the Angkola and Mandailing were Muslims). It was fascinating to see Batak graves, adorned with their traditional roofed designs. Somewhere after passing Pematangsiantar, the terrain became hilly and after half an hour of winding upslope, the road opened into a gorgeous view of Lake Toba below.


The last ferry for the day had left so I found lodging at the Wisata Sedayu (100,000 Rp), located a stone’s throw away from the bus station. It was a decent enough place to stay, but the one I was aiming for was a Hotel Sedayu, a recommendation by Lonely Planet’s 10th edition of  Indonesia). I surmised that the latest Lonely Planet isn’t very good. Not only did it not mention that there were two Sedayus and to pick the correct one (both 100 metres away from each other), it also failed to include the Parapat map, which the 9th edition had. Sadly, recent additions of LP seem to be cutting back on useful information, as well as simplifying maps to the extent that they’ve become pretty much useless.

Food. That always sets me in a good mood. So off I went for dinner after sorting out my lodging. There are plenty of warungs, or stalls along Jalan SM, the main highway in Parapat. Batak food, Minangkabau food, Javanese food and all sorts of other Indonesian regional fare. I settled for a Minang warung, going behind the ubiquitous glass displays in Indonesian eateries that stack up their dishes like a pyramid, and helping myself to plenty of different dishes. Yum. Rice, rendang,
sambal prawns, lots of sweet green and red chillis, all topped off with a glass of diabetes inducing tea. Heavenly I say, and one of the main reasons why Indonesia ranks so highly on my best countries I’ve visited list.

Tomorrow, I will be up early and trying to head to Bilage, where there is a Batak museum. Not much information on the web or in the guidebook, so I’m hoping it turns out well.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 2 of 4)

Date: Thu 23rd Jan’14

For the second day running, I failed to get to Tuktuk, my intended destination on Pulau Samosir, the island in the middle of the supervolcanic crater lake in North Sumatra called Lake Toba. Instead, I ended up spending the night in the remote village of Onanrunggu, sleeping in a local Batak family home. How did I get here?

They day began unassumingly enough. I went to the Parapat bus station at 8am, and it was deserted. The junction outside the bus station where it meets the main road is where all the minivans, locally known as opelets, pick up passengers. My destination? Balige.


Balige is a small town on the southern mainland shore of Lake Toba. On the 2nd of January 2011, the largest Batak museum in the world was opened to the public here. Balie is also firmly in Batak territory, so it should be an interesting place to visit, I thought.

I think it was contemporary Batak music they were playing throughout the journey. Because I understand Indonesian fairly well and I am unable to fathom what was probably Batak singing in the songs. The music is a lot of flutes and keyboards, over a repetitive chacha-like beat that occurs in every song. Actually, I quite like the music.

Central Balige is like many Indonesian towns, except for the fact that Batak roofs permeate through the buildings in town. There was also a row of impressive Batak houses lined up by the side of the main street. This was where the central market was located.

Batak houses are designed with huge impossible-to-miss roofs that from the side look like upturned boats, with the bow forming the front of the house. Today, the majority of Bataks in North Sumatra are Christians, of both the Protestant and Catholic denominations. However many of their traditional Batak beliefs remain, such as the designs on the Batak houses. For the houses, the roof represents the ‘world above’ or the heavens, and this roof extensively decorated with Batak motifs. The floor level where the family lives is raised above the ground level, the ‘middle world’. And under the floor level is where the animals are kept; this is the ‘world below’.

The Batak museum is located about 3 kilometers out of town, in a village called Desa Pagar Batu. I took a pleasant morning hike out there, passing by many churches and Batak graves set in paddy fields before arriving at a small complex. This was the mausoleum of Raja Sisimangaraja XII. He was a Batak leader who fought against Dutch colonial rule in the 19th century and is recognised as an Indonesian national hero.

Further down the road is the TB Sillalahi Centre, which comprises two museums in its grounds: the Batak Museum and the TB Silalahi Museum. TB Silalahi is a former Indonesian Minister of Batak descent, and the museum honours him with displays of his ceremonial attires, belongings and awards. I was more interested in the Batak Museum of course. Entry for foreigners is 50,000 Rp).

Oddly enough, there is no information about Balige or the museum in guidebooks, or even a Wikitravel / Wikivoyage entry. I thought that the site of the largest Batak museum in the world would at least deserve a mention. The museum exhibits’ text panels even had English captions, so you cannot say that it was targeted only at locals.

Expectedly, I was the only foreigner there (and even then, everyone thought I was local). The architecture of the museum building was modern and impressive, a two-storeyed building with a mezzanine floor where you enter from. The ground floor is an open-air museum showcasing sculptures of Batak guardians and ancestor figures. A 150-metre ramp leads up from the mezzanine floor to the second level, where an impressive array of exhibits displays the rich Batak heritage, culture and traditions. Among these were models of Batak houses, the aksara which was the unique alphabet developed by the Bataks, rare metal charms and jewellery, and various weapons.

My favourite was the Batak ritual staff. The Tunggal Panaluan is a carved wooden staff shaped like a totem pole, with faces carved onto it, one atop the other. There is a cautionary tale about the staff.

Interlude: The tale of the Tunggal Panaluan

Once there was a man named Guru Hatia Bulan, who lived with his wife. After seven years of trying to conceive, his wife finally gave birth to a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. However, the birth date of the twins was an inauspicious one, and during the name-day ceremony, the villagers beseeched Guru Hatia Bulan to separate the two, to prevent any misfortune befalling the village.

He was adamant that they grow up together however, and the twins were so close that as they grew up they no longer behaved like brother and sister. Instead they became lovers.

The villagers found out and condemned the twins, expelling them to live at the top of the mountains by themselves. Guru Hatia Bulan could not bear to forsake his children however, so each day he would go to the peak and bring food for them.

One day the girl, Si Tapi Omas, was foraging in the forest when she came across a tree. She climbed up the tree to pick its fruit, and to her shock, she was swallowed whole and became one with the tree. Her brother Si Aji Donda came running and tried to help her but he too became stuck to the tree and was meld to it. Their dog which had followed them also got stuck. All of them cried out for help.

Soon Guru Hatia Bulan arrived with his daily rations for his children and was horrified to find them stuck onto the tree, He called for the village dato, or shaman. The shaman, Dato Parmanuk Holing came by and inspected the tree. Suddenly he found himself dragged and stuck onto the tree! A succession of famous shamans was called to help: Maragin Bosi from Si Ajui Bahir, the shaman Pongpang Niobungan, and also the renowned Boru Sibasopaet who came with his snake. Each one was beseeched to pull the twins from the tree from which they were stuck. But every single shaman failed, and found themselves swallowed up by the tree as well.

Finally, a shaman named Parponsa Ginjang came by and said “This phenomenon is the results of the twins angering the gods, and the only way to fix this is to offer prayers to the gods and then chop the tree down, to prevent more people getting swallowed up by the tree.”

Guru Hatia Bulan chopped down the tree. He brought the wood back to the village where the village artist carved out a staff that featured the faces of each of those who have been swallowed up by the tree. On the staff were the two children of Guru Hatia Bulan, the shamans who tried to help, the dog and the snake. Everyone in the village looked on. And when the staff was finished, the shaman Parponsa Ginjang suddenly fell into a trance.

From his mouth came the words “Oh you, who has carved our features. We have eyes but we do not see, we have mouths but we cannot talk, we have ears but we do not hear. We curse you, oh carver!” The artist said in fear “Do not curse me, but instead curse my blade, for without it I would not be able to carve!”

To everyone’s surprise the carving knife retorted “It is not me you should curse, but the blacksmith. For if he had not made me, I would not be able to carve.” The blacksmith did not want to be the guilty one, and he said “Don’t wrong me, it is Guru Hatia Bulan who you should curse!”. At that point in time, everyone turned towards Guru Hatia Bulan, and the entranced shaman said “I curse you, oh Guru Hatia Bulan, you and your father and the mother who gave birth to you.”

To which Guru Hatia Bulan answered: “It is not me that you should curse, instead you should look at yourself. You are the cursed one, you who have fallen, been carved and and will never have descendants.”

The staff fell silent, before finally saying “Alright, let it be this way, oh father. Use me for calling rain, stopping rain, as a weapon, to cure illness and to ward off diseases.”  And with that, the shaman fell out of his trance. From that day onwards, the ritual staff and similar ones were carved, and these were used by powerful shamans throughout the Batak lands.


I must have spent too long at the museum, for it was 2.30pm when I finally left Balige. My destination was Tuktuk, which meant retracing my steps to Parapat, and taking the ferry across the lake to Tuktuk. But then I got too clever for my own good, and thought: “Hey, since Balige is also on the shoreline, it should have its own port!”. I asked around and ended up at the Balige port, but the ferry did not go to Tuktuk from there. It goes to the island, but only as far as Onanrunggu, a village 20 km to the south of Tuktuk. No matter, I thought, I could land there, and go by road the rest of the way to Tuktuk. The ferry was leaving in 5 minutes, and I made up my mind to just board it and go.

It was a brilliant plan, or so I thought. Arriving in Onanrunggu, I asked for the direction of the bus station. The villagers laughed. No buses. And no vehicles either, none that could take me there this late in the afternoon. According to the villagers, the road was so bad that 20km would take at least one and a half hours, and even if I paid the 200 000 Rp they were asking for, the the motorbikes riders would worry about riding back in the dark after they had dropped me off. I waited for an hour for a passing vehicle, before finally giving up.

In the end, the local mechanic I had been speaking to put me up at his mom-in-law’s place, for a quarter of the price of the ojek. It turned out to be a good decision. I got to walk around in an authentic Batak village, and got some great photos. Only downside is that I did not eat well. I had cup noodles ‘Pop Mie’, since my host was more concerned about me getting ‘halal’ food than I was, after I told her I was Muslim. And throughout the trip, in many circumstances did I see such considerate behaviour between Christians and Muslims.

Tomorrow morning, the plan is to arrive in Tuktuk. (Third attempt!). From Onanrunggu, I will be taking the 7am ferry to Parapat, and from Parapat, take the ferry back across the lake to Tuktuk. It is a testament to the slow transportation in Sumatra; to get from Point A (Onanruggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both linked together by land, I had to cross over to Parapat.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 3 of 4)

Date: Fri 24th Jan’14

Finally, I end up in Tuktuk, on the third try. At 7am, I boarded the two-hour ferry to Parapat. After yesterday’s fiasco where I found myself stranded for the night in the little village of Onanrunngu, I was intent on getting to Tuktuk. I said goodbye to the nice family who put me up for the night, and boarded the same ferry I took yesterday, this time heading to Parapat.

The deckhand, an olive skinned Batak boy of about 13, gave me a shrug, as if to say “Heading to Parapat? Then why in the world did you take the boat from Balige to Onanrunggu last night in the first place?”. I shrugged back at him, and my shrug said “Yes, I know I’m an idiot. I should have just taken the bus from straight from Balige to Parapat”.

The journey took me through some exhilarating scenery. Lake Toba was formed 75 thousand years ago when a supervolcanic eruption created the crater, resulting in weather changes throughout the world and later being filled up with water to form what is today Lake Toba. And the scenery is the kind I have seen elsewhere where volcanic rocks abound. Cliffs rise out of the lakes on either side of the ferry, its surface covered with vegetation. Pulau Samosir to my left and the mainland on my right. And on the ferry were locals picked up along the way from various villages; the water low enough for the ferry to dock right at their doorstep! These locals were going to Parapat for business, or work, or to do their shopping in a big town.

I arrived in Ajibata harbour, about 1 km away from Parapat, disembarked and took a morning stroll to Parapat. Apparently it was faster to just walk, the ferry takes another 20 minutes to get to the next bay.

The Tiga Raja harbour in Parapat was also a market area with vendors selling pineapples, mangosteens, bananas and other tropical fruits. I bought a bunch of bananas and some mangoes and got on the ferry to cross back to Samosir Island, this time to Tuktuk. As ridiculous as it sounds, the fastest way to get from Point A (Onanrunggu) to Point B (Tuktuk), both located on the same island 20 kilometers apart, is to go back to the mainland and take a ferry back from there.

I saw my first tourists in three days on the Tuktuk boat. Tuktuk is where all the tourists stay, and at the end of the 1 hour ferry ride, I saw before me a string of resorts, all laid out along the shoreline. Each one boasted traditional Batak cottages, their courtyards opening out into the lake. I picked a place which had wifi, and for around 6.5 USD, got a room so big that I had enough space to do cartwheels in the bathroom!

Tuktuk is a tourist haven, the laid-back kind of place where you just relax and do nothing, the kind of place where an intended 2 day stay becomes a week long retreat. It had all the ‘characteristics’ of similar places → banana pancakes, wifi, magic mushrooms and TV channels showing movies and sitcoms.

After four hours of doing nothing (Internet!), I got restless and decided to go for a 3 kilometre hike to the next village Ambarita, the site of a group of 300 year old stone seats, used by the Batak for meetings and discussions.The stone seats themselves were underwhelming and the western tourist group firmly entrenched in the seats as their guide talked to them dissipated whatever mystical quality the stone seats had for me.

Instead, my afternoon took a serendipitous turn. Earlier as I was in the hills walking towards Ambarita, I heard music playing from somewhere down in the village. Thinking it came from the stone seats, I mumbled about how touristy this attraction must be. However, arriving at the stone seats, there was no music. The music was further ahead, and I followed the direction from where it came from.

It was a Batak wedding, right in the middle of the road. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and a full-blown ceremony was ongoing. Music was blaring, everyone was dancing and even the band playing was live. I peeked from the rear of the festivities and tried to see what was happening. The bride and groom were seated in the middle, on chairs. Family members danced around them and took turns to drape the Ulos cloths over the bride and groom. This is the Ulos Hela ceremony. It was all quite exciting, seeing little old Batak ladies spinning around to the lively music was the highlight of the day.

Back at the resort, I spent the evening stuffing myself and on the Internet. Three days to get to Tuktuk. And tomorrow I will be leaving for Medan.

Medan, Balige and Toba (Part 4 of 4)

Date: Sat 25th Jan’14

From Parapat, I took a shared taxi (75000 Rp) which on hindsight is a decent deal, since it brought you directly to your destination. Taking the public Sejahtera bus is 32000 Rp and it is much slower, stopping passengers everywhere. And you will need to flag a cab to get to your final destination once you reach the Medan bus station. There were even two locals taking my ‘tourist’ 7 seater shared taxi.

Compared to the idyllic waters of Lake Toba, Medan is a noisy, polluted Indonesia city. Potholes and open drains needed to be avoided, traffic lights seemingly turn red and green without a pattern, and the stream of traffic: cars, becaks, taxis, motorcycles all add to the chaos. Medan feels alive.

I splurged on a nice hotel, used by travelling Indonesian businessmen, evident by the tone-deaf hotel guests that night who were warbling on the karaoke machine in the lobby. Come to think of it, my hotel room that night costs more than the past three days combined!

The sights in Medan. There are no must-see sights in this city. I popped into the Masjid Raya, a mosque built during the Kingdom of Deli. Also saw the Istana Maimoon, a royal palace whose usage is very much ceremonial these days. Along the way, I got into an altercation with a becak driver. He insisted on taking me in his trishaw to Maimoon Palace for 2000 Rp. Sure, it was just 100 meters away, so let’s do the guy a favour, I thought. He then tried to charge me an extortionate sum of 75000 Rp for the short trip, which was ridiculous! I paid that same amount in the 5 hour shared taxi ride from Toba to Medan! Of course I was furious and refused. “But I brought you sightseeing”, he reasoned, which was not even valid as my view was blocked throughout by the flap covering the front of his trishaw. I gave him an earful, a generous 10000 Rp and stomped off.

Medan’s Lapangan Merdeka is a large open space, and at its perimeter are a row of open air eateries: fast food, local fare, some fancy restaurants and a section with a stage where live bands can play. Fashionable Medan youths hang out here. Beside the lapangan Merdeka is the Central Railway Stations, which I took to get to the airport (80000 Rp).

The price was very steep, considering I paid 10000 Rp getting from the airport to town in the public Damri bus a few days back. But this was a modern airconditioned cabin; clean and brand new. I was impressed with the brightly lit and spacious seating areas, and the announcements in English and Indonesian. You could even do a city check-in at the station. I was just thinking “This is pretty good” when the train departed 15 minutes late. “Still Indonesia then, even the fancy trains run late,” I smiled to myself.

I spent the rest of the time in Medan roaming at the many shopping complexes. Medan Mall holds many brands and shops, and the adjacent linked mall is a warren of small merchants selling all sorts of knick knacks. The grandest new mall is however Centrepoint, located just beside the train station. This 6 storey mall has all the brands I know back home. There is Malaysian brand Parkson, Singapore brands like Bakerzinn, and Charles & Keith, and big tenant Korean brand Lotte, amongst others. The Chinese New Year festivities were in full flow, and there were performances on the ground floor atrium of the mall.

The top floor of the mall is a food court (so very similar to the layout of Singaporean malls), where each stall sold different regional and international fare. Opened only last month, the food court boasted Hainanese Chicken Rice from Singapore, Ipoh Laksa, Hong Kong Tsim Sha Shui, amongst other dishes. You even paid with pre-paid cards, and topped them up at counters, just like Singaporean malls.

And that was that. I left Medan the next morning, for the 1 hour flight back home. I bought boxes of the local specialty, Bika Ambon, which is a sort of tasty cake and headed home. Five days covering Parapat, Balige, Samosir Island and Medan.

Minangkabau of Malaysia

In the 1500s, Minangkabau males engaged in voluntary migration, called merantau, across the Straits of Malacca.They landed in today’s Negeri Sembilan state and founded settlements all over the region. These settlers intermarried with the local population and brought with them the culture of the Minangkabau, or Adat Perpatih, which governs laws, political organisation, traditions and social systems.

One of the most known features of this adat is the matrilineal society, in which women are the owners of land and property. Family possessions are passed down from mother to daughter. Men, on the other hand are encouraged to leave their village to far off lands seeking fame and fortune, which might explain the migration across the straits. However, they are still tied closely to their homeland, many return home experienced and contribute to the running of the family or negeri (hometown) where they sit on the council of leaders.

Those that decided to stay on in Negeri Sembilan also formed their own villages and clans with similar councils of leaders, known as the datuk-datuk penghulu luak. They were still tied to their homeland, evident in the 1760s when a group of these datuk-datuk penghulus travelled to the seat of the Minangkabau king in West Sumatra to request for a ruler. The king sent his son, a young prince by the name of Raja Melewar who became the first king of Negeri Sembilan.

His title was the Yamtuan Besar (equivalent to King) Raja Melewar. He set his royal capital at Seri Menanti, 14km away from modern day Seremban, where it is still used as the seat of the Yamtuan Besar today. He was succeeded by members of the same royal line, a monarchy that still exists to this day.

The unique feature of Negeri Sembilan is that it is an elective monarchy, according to the Adat Perpatih of the Minangkabau. Unlike the other nine Malay States with a king (known as a Sultan) whose selection is hereditary, the Yamtuan Besar is elected by the datuk-datuk penghulus from a pool of potential princes in the royal line. Yes, the same Minangkabau chieftains of the tribes who went to search for the first ruler choose the king. This council today is made up of four undangs (district lords) in the modern day luaks (districts) of Sungai Ujong, Rembau, Jelebu and Johol. These undangs are descended from noble Minangkabau families matrilineally, and have historically been the rulers of their clans.

Then I realised how Negeri Sembilan (literal translation is “9 lands”) got its name. What I thought referred to the 9th out of 13 Malaysian states actually refers to the 9 original luaks of Negeri Sembilan. Today the state comprises 7 administrative districts, though the council of 4 undangs of the luaks still exist, performing ceremonial duties and the important task of selecting the next Yamtuan Besar.

I visited Negeri Sembilan over a weekend, and the Minangkabau influence is proudly showcased everywhere. In the main city of Seremban, overhead bridges had the distincitve curved roof structure that mimicked the shape of a bull’s horns. Even the local KFC fast food restaurant was in a standalone building designed like a traditional Minang house. In the nearby villages out in the countryside, homes still bear traditional Minangkabau roofs.

The grandest Minangkabau building is the Old Palace at the royal capital Seri Menanti. It is an impressive four storey building built in 1903 constructed without any nails. The palace is today used as a museum featuring the history and regalia of the royal family. Within Seri Menanti town, there is also the royal mausoleum, a mosque and the new Royal Palace, where the current Yamtuan Besar resides.

If you are ever in Negeri Sembilan and wish to learn more about the fascinating Minangkabau of Malaysia, you should also visit the State Museum Complex. Located in Seremban, the museum offers a look into the culture and history of the Minangkabau. The main building, a grand recreation of a Minangkabau royal home, houses everything from weapons to royal ornament. There is even a section on prehistoric Negeri Sembilan.

Istana Lama Seri Menanti : The four-storeyed old royal palace

A view of the State Museum’s Minangkabau roofs, looking out of a window of a traditional home.

A modern interpretation of a Minangkabau home


Lima – Of Chocolate Hills and hiccuping tarsiers

13th Dec 2010, in Cebu City, Cebu, Philippines

Today was spent touring Bohol. We engaged through the hotel a driver and a car, for 2500 pesos, to take us to all the sights in a day. The standard package that all the tour companies offer will include the famed Chocolate Hills, a butterfly park, a man-made forest, the hanging bridges, a river cruise cum lunch in Loboc, tarsiers, the Bacylon church and the sandugo monument. Not bad for a full day tour, even though the main attractions were the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers, the rest were more or less filler.

When taking a car hire, everyone and their neighbour will offer to take you on the standard Bohol tour. It’s better to go with the hotel or a proper tour agency, rather than the trishaw rider’s brother/uncle/friend. There are some laws about having licenses to be a driver/guide, plus private vehicles have plates coloured differently. Only those with yellow plates or rainbow colourful ones can carry public passengers.


From Tagbilaran, we traveled inland towards the Chocolate Hills, a unique natural geological phenomenon here in Bohol, of over 1300 hillocks than dot the countryside. Formed centuries ago below the sea out of limestone, the hills were created when plate movements led to their formation. They get their name because during the dry season, the top of the hills dry and turn brown, hence Chocolate Hills. Sadly, we saw only the green hills.

A small buttefly conservation centre, a man-made forest (mahagony seeds planted over 40 years ago to prevent erosion) and a hanging bridge (initially made for some families on the other side of the river) become attractions for tourists.



Lunch was a kitsch affair, touted as a cruise on Loboc river on a boat where we would have a buffet lunch. At 400 pesos, I felt the food was sub-par, and the guitar strumming performer didn’t help much to improve the environ either. Possibly a highlight would be a ukelele strumming local performance choral group that sat by the side of the river and put up a performance for us. Very packaged, and touristy, I ended up buying a 400 peso ukelele. Talk about tourist traps.

After lunch, we headed for a “Kingdom of Tarsier and Other Animals”, to check out the other highlight of Bohol. The tarsier, one of the smallest mammals in the world, is found in the Philippines, and most easily spotted in Bohol. Cute little buggers, the tarsiers have gigantic eyes that take up half their face.


Their uniqueness means many tourists come to see them, and this inevitably leads to illegal tarsier poaching and the such. Hence, government regulations means places such as these are allowed to keep only 10 tarsiers. The enclosure is pretty big, allowing the tarsiers to jump from tree to tree, but visitors can come in and stand within centimeters of a tarsier. This particular establishment stops tourists from taking flash photography and tells them not to touch or startle the tarsiers, but the regular flow of tourists will mean that some of these little guys end up traumatised and as ominously pointed out by the handler, “they commit suicide”, that is, they refuse to eat till they die. =(

After the tarsiers, we trooped to the next couple of attractions, both pretty anticlimatic actually. The Baclyon church was not bad, one of the oldest most well preserved churches in the Philippines, set up in early 17th century. We did a stop by the Blood Compact monument, to signify a treaty made by the Bohol chieftain and a Spanish explorer. I was more interested in the fact that blood compact here is the Sandugo, also the name of a footwear brand in Bohol. The slippers are good quality.


Car sent us back to the ferry terminal, where we took OceanJet this time. (Supercat has newer boats, but Oceanjet has wifi on board). Back on Cebu, we found a metered cab to take us to a rest house near Ayala Center, an impressive megamall. And that was all for Malapascua / Bohol. Until the next backpack trip to Bangladesh (now THAT should be an interesting one), bye.

Apat – Tagbilaran Beauty Queens

12th Dec 2010, Tagbilaran, Bohol, Philippines

Morning saw us getting more adventurous, eschewing the chartered ferry and van for public transport. We walked to the village where others were waiting for the public bangka to take them to Cebu mainland.


Yellow buses from Ceres Liner greeted us at the Cebu side, ready to bring passengers down south. I quite like the buses, even though they were non-aircon, the big windows allowed me to look out and take in the sights and smells. The bus driver’s route meandering around town also lets me see more.

The big city (relatively) of Cebu City is completely different from Malapascua’s laid back charm. We had a plan though, and skipped the city for later, instead heading straight to the port for our fast ferry to Bohol. Supercat’s ticket office, and subsequent check-in and waiting area were comfortable, modern and sees many tourists, evident in the multiple nationalities sitting inside this ferry right now with me.


Reached Tagbilaran city, spent the rest of the day there. We took a 50 peso trishaw to Chriscentville Hotel, in the city centre for a 1200 peso room. Went to explore the surrounding malls, BQ Mall is a 5 storey mall which looks like the majordomo mall out here. That’s where i had Halo-halo, ice shavings and sugar and toppings, very much like our local Ais Kachang. More charming is Tagbilaran City Square, adjacent to it. This mall looks older and more run down, but then I’m biaised, because TCS was the location of Miss Dunkin Donuts 2010! We were shopping and minding our own business when the commotion on the second floor atrium signalled the start of the pageant. We stayed 2.5 hours to watch the beauty pageant from start to finish. My favourite, contestant number 8, won top honours!

Here’s the intro video, if you can’t see it, go to http://www.thefuriouspanda.com/search/label/tagbilaran

It’s a 10 minute walk from Exotic to the village where the public boat sets off, just ask anyone for directions. The ferry ticket is 50 pesos one way, and at low tide, you need to pay 10 pesos on each bank for the little boat (tundas) to take you from shore to the ferry. First ferry sets off at 630am, so it makes sense to be at the ferry station (which is nothing more than a covered tent) at around 615am. The ferry bangka itself is about 40 minutes.


At Maya, its a 95 peso, 4.5 hour bus ride with stops down to Cebu city. The bus is the yellow Ceres Liner, non-airconditioned. The bus stops outside SM Plaza in Cebu City.

From there, I took a 5 minute taxi ride to the pier. Always metered, starting meter price is 30 peso. In total it was around 50 peso, excluding a 10 peso port entrance fee.

Pier 4, where Supercat and Weesam have services to Tagbilaran, on Bohol. Pier 1 is where Oceanjet’s service start from. At Pier 4, I took Supercat, 535 pesos, a 1.5 hour fast ferry ride to Tagbilaran port. The ferry leaves at 1230pm, other timings also available on the bohol website.

tatio – Of Mandarinfish and seahorses that only come out at night

11th Dec 2010, Malapascua, Philippines


9am for the first dive. We headed towards Lighthouse, the site of hull of a Jap WWII wreck, just 10m deep. We didn’t get a chance to do the dive sites at Gato Island, which was 45 minutes boat ride out. There needed to be at least 4 of us before they could take us there. Nevertheless, the next best alternative at the Lighthouse was a pretty good one. After all, we were getting one bangka boat to ourselves, with a 2 DM to 3 divers ratio.





Dive 4: Lighthouse. Hard corals, long dive since it was only 10m deep. Dive 5: Deep slope, which is a semi-wall dive, my favourite kind. The sheer amount of nudibranches spotted was enough to keep me happy all day. A moray roaming the slope was icing. Dive 6: Lighthouse (night). We returned back to Lighthouse for a dusk dive, ready to spot the elusive mandarinfish, a colourful fish that shies away under hard coral. They come out only at night, and since they fit into the palm of your hand, you can imagine how hard it is to find one in the water at night. Our DM Jojo was the hero, finding a mandarinfish almost immediately at the beginning of the dive. Additionally, he also found plenty of seahorses, a first for me in over 50 dives. Crabs, hermit crabs, cuttlefish and more boxer shrimps made up the night party.







Dinner was at one of the beachfront restaurants. Dishes were around the 150-300 range, fairly reasonable. There was an absence of local type eateries here in Malapascua, since most of the food is home cooked for the family. I had adobo, which is any mean cooked with vinegar and what seems like soy sauce.

Dalawa – Thresher shark spotting

10th Dec 2010, Malapascua, Philippines

At 430am, we were up and about, getting ready for the pre-dawn dive, in order to catch a thresher shark sighting. The dive location is Monad Shoal, a sunken island, on whose plateau the trhresher sharks regularly hang out. They come out from the depths to this plateau to get cleaned by the cleaner fish, before going back down. It’s one of the few places to see threshers, characterised by their long dorsal tail fin that grows to almost half their entire body length.

We were hoping we’d get lucky. There’s a 55% chance of seeing one this time of year, according to the Evolution Dive owners, Matt and David. Our DMs were Jojo and Julius, both born and bred on Malapascua island. The conditions that morning at 5am were unfavourable. Morning torrents and choppy waters. We’d be cursing if we don’t see the threshers today; as it meant we’d have to go out again tomorrow morning in the cold rain to try again. We hear stories of divers who come here and dive for a week daily without ever spotting a thresher shark.

We weren’t disappointed. A huge 2m plus thresher was in the vicinity and swam round in circles, at one time turning towards me and coming within a few meters away. Stupidly, i forgot to bring down the underwater camera, and only had it passed to me later, by which time I only got fleeting shots of the shark. Ok, I’m content. Mission accomplished. Thresher shark spotted.


The next couple of dives saw us spotting various local stuff like a frogfish, pairs of banded boxer shrimps, lots of lionfish. Dive 2: Lapus Lapus. Dive 3: Bantingi.





In the evening after the dives, did a loop around the village that sits behind all the dive resorts. It’s my first Filipino village experience, and it delivers. Despite the resorts catering to the dive crowd, life in Malapascua remains simple. Children play in the sand, neighbours crowd outside a house, peeking in to watch the television in the household. Videokes abound too, you can hear the singing (wailing!) from the villagers belting local and foreign chart toppers. Malapascua’s changing though. More resorts are popping up, structures are being built as I was there, no doubt to capture the increasing tourist dollar. Come to Malapascua now, before it’s all gone in 10 years time =)

And the highlight, besides the sharks, here’s a video of the Malapascuan village kids dancing away, the last shot in the vid sees one kid pulling the other’s pants down =)

If you don’t see the Youtube video, go to the original source : http://furiouspanda.blogspot.com

isa – Mactan to Malapascua

9th Dec 2010, Malapascua, Phillipines

AirPhile Express’ A320 fleet flies out of Changi Terminal 2, Singapore, its first international destination to Manila and Cebu City. Armed with cheap promo tickets, off we go, T, ZJ and I to Cebu. The destination? Malapascua Island, off the northern tip of Cebu. The agenda? Thresher sharks.

As soon as we got out of the Cebu / Mactan international airport, we were whizzed into a van, to take us direct to Maya at the northern end, where we will take the pumpboat to Malapascua. It was a 3 hour van ride, which seemed longer because of the rain, and also due to the fact that it gets dark here much earlier, at around 6. The road hugs the eastern coastline.

Here’s the view from the pumpboat. I suspect the cross-like mast is intentional, seeing that the majority of Filipinos are Roman catholics.


Dive outfit that we went with is Evolution Dive, one of the newer dive cos. on the malapascuan dive scene. And they put us up at The Purple Snapper, a 5 minutes walk inland from Evolution. Tomorrow morning, we will wake up at 4am, to go out to spot thresher sharks at Monad Shoal, since this is the only time when they come out.

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